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SAT unveils 'intense' changes in test questions

It might be fair to describe the major changes that are coming in 2016 to the nation's most-recognizable college-admissions test, the SAT, as "intense."

It might be fair to describe the major changes that are coming in 2016 to the nation's most-recognizable college-admissions test, the SAT, as "intense."

In fact, understanding how the word intense is used properly in an essay is one of the sample questions that the College Board, which oversees the SAT, rolled out Wednesday to give students and educators an idea of how the admissions test will change in two years.

In addition to making the controversial essay portion optional, in its most sweeping overhaul in years the Princeton-based testing service said its new questions will be more geared toward gauging what students actually learned in high school, problem-solving, and reading comprehension in the real world.

That will mean the elimination of esoteric, polysyllabic vocabulary words, such as propinquity (nearness), that have long been a hallmark of the exam.

New questions will be based on "words that students will use throughout their lives - in high school, college, and beyond," the College Board said in posting some of the new sample questions on the Internet. It added, "Requiring students to master relevant vocabulary will change the way they prepare for the exam. No longer will students use flash cards to memorize obscure words, only to forget them the minute they put their test pencils down."

Education experts have said the College Board was facing pressure to overhaul the SAT because - while it remains the dominant college-admissions exam in the East - the test is losing ground in other parts of the country to the ACT exam, which markets itself as more closely tied to actual high school curriculums.

Just under 1.7 million students took the SAT last year, the largest number of takers in history, but about 1.8 million took the ACT, which surpassed the SAT for the first time in 2012.

The SAT changes also come as more states push to implement the shared nationwide curriculum standards known as the Common Core; one of the leading advocates for that classroom reform, David Coleman, is now the president and CEO of the College Board.

The radical change in vocabulary testing is just one part of the overhaul. The College Board also provided examples showing how the 2016 exam would better test students' reasoning, or "command of evidence." One illustration was an essay question analyzing an article entitled, "Why Literature Matters."

It also promises to "focus on math that matters most" in posing problems that test-takers are more likely to encounter in college or their careers.

Students are asked, in the sample questions, to use a scatter-plot graph to interpret the rise in Florida's manatees, to show their understanding of a bar graph about traffic congestion, and to interpret the intent of a 1974 speech on presidential impeachment by U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan before the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

The pending overhaul of the SAT, which will be given to students in the spring of 2016, was first announced last month.

These represent the first SAT changes since 2005, when the essay was added and analogy questions were removed. In 1994 antonym questions were removed and calculators were allowed. The test was first used in 1926.

Officials also said that in the new test, students will no longer be penalized for offering a wrong answer, which encouraged test-takers to leave questions blank rather than venturing guesses.

Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a group that has long been critical of the SAT's prominence in university admissions, said the changes unveiled Wednesday do not alter the center's view that the exam is a poor tool for deciding who gets accepted by colleges. He argues that high school grades remain the best predictor of college performance.

"Our conclusion is that this is cosmetic surgery done to make the 2016 model SAT look more attractive so it can better compete with ACT," Schaeffer said. "Nowhere does it say this test will be a better predictor of college performance or that it will level the playing field for women, minorities, and older students, and that it will be less susceptible to high-priced personalized coaching."

"We all feel like this test is going to favor the educationally privileged because it's a curriculum-based test and because the curriculum is going to be more reinforced in the better schools," said Matthew Joseph, founder of MJ Test Prep in Bryn Mawr.

He said the reasoning-based skills gave students who didn't go to high-achieving schools a better shot. Now, he said, the SAT will be "very similar to the ACT."

A leader at Lancaster's Franklin and Marshall College - one of about 30 in Pennsylvania that does not require standardized tests for admission - praised the overhaul.

Julie Kerich, director of admissions, said the revision should eliminate some of the advantages once held by more affluent students who could afford the best test-preparation classes.

Said Kerich, "I think it's going to be more knowledge that you learn vs. strategies that you can figure out."